I have depression and anxiety. But I have to earn a living and reconcile my illness with the demands of a job. I always found it hard to discuss with my peers and superiors, worried that I’d be out of a job and onto the poverty line. Does any of that sound familiar to you?
For those of us who suffer with depression and other related conditions, one of the toughest places to suffer can be our workplace. The stigma (and fear of the stigma) around this illness has offered huge challenges to those who want to function as best they can and lead a relatively ‘normal’ life in society. The challenges can be many and varied, from forcing yourself into a daily routine to trying to build a career without being simply regarded as ‘the mental one who’ll crack at the first sign of pressure’. Deciding whether or not to share details of your illness with colleagues can seem almost insurmountable.
I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety since childhood but only started my diagnosis journey about eight years ago. Since then I’ve held down a number of jobs, with varying degrees of success.
The worst of these was a three month stint with the sales team of a delivery company, where ‘fitting in’ meant being exactly the same as anyone else there and a ready cold shoulder was offered to anyone who differed in any way. I remember trying to initiate a discussion with my manager around problems I was experiencing both in and out of the workplace. The brief look of horror on her face followed by general avoidance tactics and the eventual ‘We just don’t feel that you’re suited for this job’ were no surprise. This seems to be an experience shared by many sufferers, and one that I became more determined to challenge in the future.
Last year I started with a new company in a telesales role. From day one they were at pains to tell us the value of a respectful and supportive work environment where we would be judged on our performance rather than our differences. I increasingly came to think that if my colleagues were aware of my depression and anxiety issues, I might find it easier to ask for help and support if needed. Furthermore, I hoped they would see that suffering this illness didn’t mean that people had to tread on eggshells around me or avoid me as the ‘office mentalist’. I felt I was performing well generally; and that it would be easier to talk about whilst I was in my ‘good cycle’.
At the same time I was promoted to manage my department, a real honour after just 4 months, with a team in whom I trusted enough to openly share my condition. They know that they can approach me to discuss the illness at any point – for example, there were many conversations around the time of Gary Speed’s tragic suicide where we gained understanding in the thought processes that can lead people to such a hopeless situation.
Most recently, a young colleague felt able to talk to me about his recent diagnosis and medication, safe in the knowledge that he would be understood and not judged. In our own small way we’re breaking down preconceptions at work, and proving that suffering from depression doesn’t mean that we have any less contribution to make to our business. We want to be judged on what we can do, not on what people think we can’t do.
Increasingly these days, it’s the fear of stigma that holds us back rather than any perceived stigma itself. Don’t be afraid of others and their reactions; if it’s difficult to speak to your line manager, why not chat with your HR team? If you can ask for the support you need, you’re likely to find it.
It takes courage to stand up and ask for understanding; it’s my hope that you find that courage and move forward with strength.